Charity argued against disclosing it hired abuser despite conviction

All-island charity Extern concerned at families being told of ‘error’ hiring sexual abuser

A charity working with hundreds of the State’s most vulnerable children opposed telling families that a staff member who sexually abused a teenager in its services was hired despite having a previous assault conviction.

The former employee of Extern, an all-island charity providing support services to at-risk children, was convicted last year of sexually abusing a teenager in its Northern Ireland service during the second half of 2019.

The charity did not notify Tusla, the State child and family agency, of the abuse for more than a year, despite the staff member working directly with children from the Republic. While authorities in the North were notified at the time, Tusla was not told until September 2020.

Internal emails show Extern argued against a move to inform the families of other children in its services about what had happened.

The charity raised concerns with both Tusla and the Health Service Executive (HSE) that sharing information with families could prejudice the then-ongoing criminal case. The former employee later pleaded guilty and was convicted over the sexual abuse last spring.

An internal investigation by Extern found the perpetrator had been hired despite a previous conviction for aggravated assault, which was picked up during the police vetting process, but incorrectly recorded by the organisation.

In a January 2021 email, Danny McQuillan, Extern’s then interim chief executive, now chief executive, raised concerns over proposals to share this information with the families of young people in Extern services.

Extern’s legal advice said the criminal case could be affected if families “decided to publicise the admitted error by Extern” in hiring the man, he wrote, in correspondence released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

The legal advice was shared with Tusla, which refers hundreds of vulnerable young people to Extern, for which the charity receives €7 million in funding a year.

Public-interest exemption

Extern had a public-interest exemption to share information from the man’s police vetting with Tusla, but this “does not extend” to permitting Tusla to pass the information on, Mr McQuillan said. The agency risked committing an offence if it disclosed details of the prior conviction to other bodies or people, he added.

Mr McQuillan said Tusla would have to consider whether it had “a lawful basis” to share the information under data-protection laws as, if not, the agency and Extern could face “actionable claims for compensation” from the abuser.

In an email on December 22nd, 2020, Antoinette Kinsella, co-ordinator of the Midlands Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Force, who referred children to Extern services, told the charity she had met HSE senior management over the issue.

The HSE asked Extern “to reflect” on the health service policy of open disclosure, to inform service users when something goes wrong. Ms Kinsella said the HSE “believe that the longer this is not disclosed trust will be lost by the parents and guardians if disclosed later”.

In response, Mr McQuillan said the charity was “fully committed” to open disclosure but legal advice cautioned against it due to the ongoing court case. Tusla had agreed not to pursue a policy of open disclosure “given the legal advice secured by Extern”, he said.

‘Responsibility of Tusla’

A spokeswoman for Extern said Tusla had told the charity that if families were to be told, the disclosure would “be the responsibility of Tusla”. Following a review Tusla told Extern “that they would not pursue open disclosure based on its findings,” she said. Extern then informed the HSE it would be following Tusla’s position of “non-disclosure,” the spokeswoman said.

A spokesman for Tusla said it carried out a “comprehensive review” which found no indication any child in the Republic had been harmed in Extern’s care.

“Tusla did consider extending further communication with families to advise we were aware of an incident for Extern in a particular area,” he said.

“However, in light of serious court protections in a specific case, and the fact that our own reviews indicated no concern, a decision was taken that there was no further need at this time for engagement with individual families,” he said.